Clouds were gathering on the horizon. Not big, fluffy, what animal is that? clouds, but dark, squally, foreboding clouds. And the trail was headed straight into them. Why wasn’t it time to turn left yet? There was Mount Ngauruhoe, aka “Mount Doom” also on the horizon, looking very doom-like indeed, enveloped as it was by deep black clouds. I looked down at my watch, 55kms, 5:30 pm. We had been on the track for nearly 11 hours…why hadn’t we gotten started earlier?
The alarm had gone off at 4:45am. To be honest, we’d gotten to bed later than we should have, doing last minute packing and finalising of maps and gear. Time frittered away making real coffee with the Aeropress when we probably should’ve just made instant and gotten on with it. Making a few wraps for lunch, getting dressed, heading over to the kitchen to make oats for breakfast. Finding out that The Park Hotel had been sold, and under the new ownership had renovated the kitchen and gotten rid of the communal kitchen that was there. That resulted in us begging the early morning prep cook to let us make our oats so that we could get a solid meal in our bellies in preparation for 14 hours on the trail. Then the obligatory chat with said prep cook…”but why are you running that far?”
6:45am start your watches!
Section 1: The Goat – 24kms
Blue skies , tussock grasslands and boardwalks greeted us and lulled us into a false sense of security. So runnable! Perhaps we were also distracted by the mighty snow-capped Ruapehu, one of New Zealand’s most active volcanoes and is the highest peak on the North Island, fully visible in all it’s splendour right in front of us. When did we cross the first river? Hard to say when we took the initial plunge, gasped at the icy cold water on our feet and calves, and then carried on. We would do it so many times after that we barely noticed by the end.
The change in the terrain was pretty immediate. Just after Whakapapaiti Hut, perhaps 10kms in and suddenly you’re climbing up, surrounded by rough-edged boulders, big craggy reminders that this was once a lava field. That where the icy water now flowed, lava once flowed. This section is aptly named, you really do need to be as nimble as a mountain goat to do it at any speed. It’s also arguably one of the more scenic parts of the run, with waterfalls, an alpine lake, many river valleys and an unobstructed view of Ruapehu.
Probably the most memorable part of this section was climbing atop hardened lava, alongside a cascading waterfall, crossing the waterfall, and continuing to climb. You’re treated to the stunning view at the base of the falls, and then get to continue to marvel as you climb up higher and higher.
At Mangaturuturu Hut (the one place we saw other runners, but they were hustling and didn’t stop to chat) we stopped to admire the cozy looking accommodation, apply sunscreen, and double check the map. We knew we’d nearly finished Section 1, and were reinvigorated by the prospect of being 1/3 of the way through. After some undulating hills and a steep climb, we emerged on the road leading up to the Turoa Ski Area, paused for a photo, and begin a cruisy jog down the road to the start of Section 2.
Section 2: The Missing Link – 25.5kms
Aka “the never-ending scree field”
There are a number of reasons why it’s smart to run this counter-clockwise, beginning the day with The Goat. Running down the steep winding hill, away from the ski fields, is definitely one of them. Watching the weary, sun-cooked trampers trudge uphill as we gleefully scampered down it was gratifying although we felt a little bad for the poor backpack burdened folks. Reason #201 why running is better, LOL.
Once we officially got onto The Missing Link, we found that – at first – it undulated gently with gravelled tracks and boardwalks. We splashed through the Mangaturuturu River, barely noticing that our feet were wet again. Early on, a highlight was coming upon Lake Surprise (which was indeed a surprise!), a really beautiful, shallow but quite substantial alpine lake surrounded by beech forest and tussock.
Our next destination was Mangaehuehue Hut, roughly 36kms into the ROF, or about halfway through the run. We were planning to treat it as an aid station and stop there for lunch, and a water refill. By this time I was getting really hungry, the fuel tank was definitely low and the check engine light was just about to come on. I kept thinking we would reach the hut at any moment, around every corner. Finally, fearing that I was going to bonk if I didn’t eat and not knowing when we’d hit the hut, I busted out my simple bar and had a little appetiser. Of course only moments after I’d finished it and stowed the wrapper the hut appeared. It had begun to cloud over a bit as we unwrapped our hummus & falafel and sat down to enjoy it. Mmmmmmm glad we put that extra salt on! After not eating much solid food for hours on end (thanks Tailwind!) a little warning bell in my head said “Brittany you should really only eat half of this” but I shushed that stupid voice and crammed the rest down my gullet. As you might guess both Jess and I would come to regret that decision.
We had been running again for about a half an hour, skipping across mangled boardwalks and down and up little river gullies, when the nausea hit. Now that I’m a mildly experienced ultra runner, I’ve been nauseous out on runs a handful of times and I knew I probably wouldn’t lose my lunch but would have to slow it down and suffer through the discomfort for a wee while. Jess and I had been quiet for some time and I decided to break the silence by telling her that I was feeling a bit ill, to which she immediately replied “me too.” Well, at least we were in this together…
Our next destination was Rangipo Hut, and sweeping out around the hut is what’s called the Rangipo Desert, which pretty aptly describes the vast, arid scree field on either side of it. Every now and then, waves of cold wind rushed down off the mountain and reminded us of how changeable the weather is in the national park, how easily the volcano captures said weather, and then again that there’s snow and ice right above you. Somewhere before the Lahar (volcanic mudflow) river crossing we carefully picked our way straight down into a valley, crossed a swing bridge and discovered that the poled route took us right back up the other side. That was a painful moment – one of those where you’re laughing out of exhaustion, bent forward so you don’t lose your balance and topple back down the unforgiving valley wall.
It was late in the day by the time we reached the Lahar river crossing. For those who don’t know, the summit of Ruapehu contains a large crater with a lake. Little eruptions from inside the volcano are vented through the lake, which often cause the lake to drain and form these super dangerous lahars. Hence the signage telling you not to linger.
Too bad the lahar river area is insanely beautiful, especially when it’s lit up by the setting sun. The water is an electric blue and the rocks around the river look like someone sprinkled gold dust all over them. This is where we took our last photos, looking at our watches we realised it was time to hustle. There were dark storm clouds on the horizon, the sun was low in the sky and we still had a little over another half marathon to run.
Stay tuned for Part 2…